While many rural communities have watched their economies collapse during the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah’s outdoor recreation economy has continued to support thousands of jobs across the state thanks to its unparalleled public lands and national parks.
Outdoor recreation in Utah generates nearly $12.3 billion in annual consumer spending, and these public lands offer unmatched refuge for those seeking a bit of normalcy during the pandemic.
Yet this economic lifeblood is being threatened at the worst possible time by the Trump administration’s current oil and gas leasing binge, which is boneheadedly shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible.
This mad rush to lease public lands across the West continues as the price of, and demand for, oil has cratered due to the pandemic. So, instead of companies bidding up the lease prices and providing a fair return to taxpayers, leases are practically given away at $2 per acre or less.
As if that was not enough of a sweetheart deal, in response to lobbying from the oil and gas industry, the administration has also been slashing the royalty rate companies have to pay for the oil and gas they produce, which shortchanges both taxpayers and the state of Utah.
The threat to Utah from oil and gas leasing became more evident this past summer, when the administration proposed offering up more than 100,000 acres of lands on the doorsteps of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and Bears Ears National Monument, to the oil and gas industry.
While President Trump may be blind to the immense nonmineral value of Utah’s public lands, local leaders and business owners are not.
There was strong and vocal opposition to that proposed September sale from Grand County, the City of Moab and more than 100 businesses. They wisely recognized that this reckless lease sale could threaten this state’s recreation and tourism economy by diminishing the landscape, and with it, Moab’s world-class outdoor recreation appeal.
The administration ultimately backed down, with Secretary of Interior Bernhardt pulling the acreage near Arches and Canyonlands from the sale. The reprieve may be short-lived, since it can be put back on the auction block at any time.
That these were even considered for lease in the first place is a consequence of having people in charge who fail to grasp what these amazing places mean to us, to our lifestyle and to our livelihood.
And their fate should not rest solely on the whims of an administration that sees lands solely from a commodity perspective, and is far too willing to subordinate all other public land values to oil and gas development.
We need a new federal oil and gas leasing system that promotes more thoughtful, market-savvy and fiscally responsible policies. One that does not cheat taxpayers, threaten local economies, trample on multiple-use principles and hurt communities like Moab.
For instance, antiquated royalty rates on oil production have cost Utahns over $1.4 billion over the past decade, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Industry is also gaming the system through speculative leasing, which allows fossil fuel companies to control and hoard public lands at bargain basement prices — lands that have more value for uses like water supply, recreation or wildlife habitat.
The good news is that real solutions to this are being pushed in Congress — fixes that would protect taxpayers and local economies, end speculative oil and gas leasing, ensure failing oil and gas companies clean up after themselves and preserve our access to public lands.
Utah’s congressional delegation can help the state and its residents immensely by supporting these common sense solutions.
This state is blessed with unique and breathtaking landscapes that draw in visitors from all over the world, and provide a critical buffer against recession. Neither this administration, nor the oil and gas companies it acts at the behest of, should have free rein to diminish these resources and cheat taxpayers in the process.
David Jenkins is president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national organization with more than 400 Utah members.